Take Only Pictures… And Don’t Geotag Them

4:05 minutes

You’ve probably had the experience of scrolling through your Instagram feed, coming across a picture of some hidden swimming hole, secluded mountain trail, or pristine beach, and thought, “I want to go THERE.”

[Tourists traveling to threatened places may be making the problem worse.]

Popular accounts on Instagram and other social media services can increase the visibility of remote places, making them more accessible and encouraging people to venture into the outdoors. But some are worried that the accounts can attract too much attention to fragile places that may not be able to withstand hordes of visitors. Zoe Schiffer, who recently wrote about the issue for Racked, joins Ira to talk about social media and the great outdoors, and whether guidelines for “leaving no trace” need to be updated for the digital age. 

Segment Guests

Zoe Schiffer

Zoe Schiffer is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: Now it’s time to play good thing, bad thing.


Because every story has a flip side, now you’ve probably had the experience of scrolling through your Instagram feed, right, and you come across a picture of some hidden swimming hole. Oh, a nice secluded mountain trail, a pristine beach, and you think to yourself, hey I got to go there. But there is some bad news. There is a downside. Joining me now is Zoe Schiffer. She’s a freelance writer based in Oakland, and she recently wrote about the issue of outdoor influencers for Racked. That’s an online science site. She joins me by Skype. Welcome to Science Friday.

ZOE SCHIFFER: Thank you. Glad to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. So what’s the good thing about these massively popular accounts sharing their outdoor photos?

ZOE SCHIFFER: I think the good thing is pretty straightforward. I mean, more people are getting outside. In 2015, there was something like 4 million people who visited Yosemite, which was a record-breaking year for the park. And the following year it was 5 million. That means more money from entrance fees, and more people who could potentially care about conservation and environmental policy, either because they themselves have this new connection to the land, or they’re hearing about the issues on social media.

And influencers really see themselves as part of this trend by inspiring other people to get outside. Oftentimes, they’re the ones talking about conservation issues first, and really bringing them into the mainstream. And I like to think of it as like an accessibility argument. The outdoors shouldn’t be an elitist sport, and people from all backgrounds should be able to find out about outdoor spaces and enjoy them, so that’s really the positive.

IRA FLATOW: All right, so let’s talk about the downside. What’s the downside?

ZOE SCHIFFER: The downside is pretty big here. I mean, the human impact on these outdoor spaces is huge. Not all of them have the resources to keep up with the big influx of visitors. I mean, it’s one thing for 4 million people to visit Yosemite, but for a hidden hot spring that was previously known by a handful of people to go viral on social media, that can be really detrimental. Some other ones are that not everyone is aware of how to be safe in the outdoors, if this is a new experience for them. There have been incidents of people dying as they try to get a particular shot. And not everyone is aware of leave no trace principles, which is really what I wrote about in the piece.

IRA FLATOW: Tell us about that.

ZOE SCHIFFER: Yeah, so leave no trace is really a framework for how to make decisions and enjoy the outdoors responsibly. They’ve had the same seven principles since 1989. And with every new technology, be it drones or handheld GPS devices, or social media now, they’ve been asked by a large number of people to add a principle that specifically references the tech. And they haven’t done so yet.

They’re kind of waiting to see how the situation evolves before they do it, but they have published a set of guidelines that I think really speak to how we can use social media outdoors in a way that’s responsible. And these are don’t tag specific locations. So if you want to talk or share where a photo was taken, choose a general area, not like specific hiking trail. And don’t post photos of yourself breaking the rules by like lighting a campfire where campfires aren’t allowed, or getting too close to the wildlife. Because those kind of actions encourage other people to do the same.

IRA FLATOW: So they have not yet posted anything special though. You say there’s another principle that they might post.

ZOE SCHIFFER: Yeah, they’ve called– the hikers, for an eighth leave no trace principle, have actually written one. It says be mindful when posting on social media, and consider the potential impacts of rapidly increased use can have on wild places. But leave no trace themselves have not added a principle yet. They’ve posted a set of guidelines, which is like a watered down version of a principle, you could think of it that way, to just guide people. And I think in the next few years, if social media continues to have the impact that it’s been having, they will go ahead and add an eighth principle.

IRA FLATOW: Because I can see, you know, a lot of people just going out there and trampling up the stuff.

ZOE SCHIFFER: Yeah, it’s true. I mean, I like to think– the baseline is just that we all have to be mindful about the impact that our digital actions can have on the world around us. And if do that, I think there’s a way to use social media responsibly outside.

IRA FLATOW: Good words. Thanks for taking time to be with us today.

ZOE SCHIFFER: Yeah, of course, thank you.

IRA FLATOW: We’ll watch for that eighth principle coming out. Zoe Schiffer is a freelance writer based in Oakland, and her article about this recently appeared on Racked.

Copyright © 2018 Science Friday Initiative. All rights reserved. Science Friday transcripts are produced on a tight deadline by 3Play Media. Fidelity to the original aired/published audio or video file might vary, and text might be updated or amended in the future. For the authoritative record of Science Friday’s programming, please visit the original aired/published recording. For terms of use and more information, visit our policies pages at http://www.sciencefriday.com/about/policies/

Meet the Producer

About Charles Bergquist

As Science Friday’s director and senior producer, Charles Bergquist channels the chaos of a live production studio into something sounding like a radio program. Favorite topics include planetary sciences, chemistry, materials, and shiny things with blinking lights.

Explore More